The Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive backs could have their work cut out for them this week when they face the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Most of the players that punished the Bengals’ defense over the past few years will not be on the field Monday when the two AFC North division rivals meet, but JuJu Smith-Schuster remains, and right now, he’s Pittsburgh’s biggest weapon.
Cincinnati already is banged up in the secondary and up front with the pass rush, and Smith-Schuster most certainly will be looking to take advantage of a weak spot for the Bengals.
“He’s the most proven guy, I would say,” cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick said. “He’s leading the offense right now. He’s turned a page in his book too, so we just have to keep our eyes on him and keep focused on him because we know they are going to feature him in the passing game, and they want to get him the ball.”
Smith-Schuster, a third-year player out of USC, has stepped up in Antonio Brown’s absence and he currently leads the Steelers with 243 yards on 14 receptions and 24 targets (21.4 percent of passes are thrown his way) with eight first downs and a touchdown.
But what’s most impressive, perhaps, is that he has picked up more than half his receiving yards after the catch and forced three missed tackles.
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That doesn’t bode well for the Bengals, who rank 29th in yards allowed per pass play (9.2) and 32nd in yards after the catch per completion allowed (8.1), but Anarumo didn’t want to give away his game plan on how he plans to defend against a player like Smith-Schuster and whether he would consider traveling corners.
“We’ve done that before,” Anarumo said. “Some game plans will tell us to do it and others don’t. You could have a combination of both so we will see how it goes.”
The Bengals might be trying some different things in their secondary in terms of personnel, too.
Safety Shawn Williams was limited Thursday in practice because of a back injury, despite an extra day of rest following Sunday’s loss at Buffalo, and the nickel corner spot remains in question with B.W. Webb still working back from a forearm injury.
Coach Zac Taylor believes Webb could be available Monday, but one of the two players that replaced him last week just went on injured/reserve unexpectedly Thursday. Darius Phillips was coming off a breakout performance Sunday but had some loose cartilage in his knee and it flared up Monday, so he’s out the next eight weeks.
Tony McRae split time in the slot with Phillips on Sunday and could remain in that role Sunday even if Webb returns, but in light of that uncertainty, the Bengals signed Greg Mabin and picked up cornerback Torry McTyer off the Kansas City Chiefs’ practice squad this week.
Mabin originally was a college free agent signee of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2017 and he’s played in 20 career games with one start. McTyer also came out of college undrafted and signed with the Miami Dolphins in 2017, where he remained until getting waived at final cuts earlier this month. He has played in 22 games.
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“These are two guys who we feel aren’t just ‘green’ guys,” Taylor said. “They can show up and get some playing time. Whether they’re both active, one of them is inactive, or B.W. is out – there’s a lot of things that play into it – we felt like we needed the DB depth at this point with D.P. going down. I’m hopeful B.W. will play this week, but we still have to take it day-to-day with him and see how he responds to putting his hands on people. We just felt like we needed that depth at defensive back.”
Smith-Schuster isn’t the only receiver the Bengals will be worrying about Monday. Second-year receiver James Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson have proven to be electric deep threats at times, and the only real question seems to be whether second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph can get them the ball.
Rudolph will be making his third career appearance in place of Ben Roethlisberger, who underwent season-ending elbow surgery, and it’s no secret the Bengals will have a different game plan for him than they would Big Ben.
“Ben’s Ben, he’s a Hall of Famer,” Anarumo said. “The playbook is open (when Ben is in there). It’s like when you play Tom (Brady) or Drew (Brees) or any of those guys - Russell Wilson - you can get anything. We played Green Bay in the past and (Aaron Rodgers) could check to a play that they haven’t run in three years. That’s not what is up for this kid, obviously, so those are the major differences. He is going to be honed into just the game plan. You look when you’re playing a guy like that that what you get is probably what you are going to get the whole game.”
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